Toward a Theory of a Arab-Muslim Women as Activists in Secular and Religious Movements

By Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Toward a Theory of a Arab-Muslim Women as Activists in Secular and Religious Movements


Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


INTRODUCTION

PERHAPS NO OTHER CULTURAL AREA ON EARTH compares with the Arab-Muslim Middle East, in particular, and the Islamic world, in general, in terms of the perceived low status of women, their veiled and secluded existence in the domestic arena, and their general non-participation in public life. In popular images, the West has a powerful conception of the Arab-Muslim woman as veiled, passive, docile, and dominated by men, the antithesis of her Western, emancipated counterpart. The contradictory stereotype of the exotic belly-dancer, which is also a cherished Western view of the Middle Eastern woman, is somehow understood to be more romance than real, and perhaps, part of the larger set of stereotypes associated with the "Hollywood Arab" (Shaheen, 1986). But the former view of the subjugated Arab-Muslim woman has an aura of reality and validity about it, and has broad acceptance in Western society.

The lag between scholarly discourse and popular attitudes is apparent even in a cursory review of the literature over the past two decades dealing with the subject of Arab and Muslim women. Western female, and also male, scholars and Middle Eastern female and male scholars have portrayed a radically different reality in their research and writing. Women are described as powerful figures in domestic life, as increasingly literate and educated, as entering the labor force in growing numbers, as managing household affairs when their male relatives have emigrated to work abroad, as historical and contemporary agitators for social change, and as participants in the public and political life of their communities and nations. A number of edited volumes and collected works have appeared in the past decade-and-a-half that attest to the diversity and the depth of this scholarship in Middle Eastern studies (cf., Beck and Keddie, 1978; Smith, 1981; Hussain, 1984; Fernea and Bezirgan, 1977), and an even more significant number of individual studies or thematic volumes devoted to topics relevant to women have appeared during the same time period (for example, Dwyer, 1978; Esposito, 1982; Rugh, 1984; Mernissi, 1975; Tucker, 1986; Fluehr-Lobban, 1987). One recent volume is devoted to the theme of studying the Middle East from within, and is a series of reflections on fieldwork in the region by women from Arab and Muslim backgrounds (Altorki and Fawzi El-Solh, 1988).

Contemporarily, the subject of women has been tied to the larger issue of Islamic revival or "fundamentalism" in the region (cf. Voll, 1983; Stowasser, 1987; Hoffman-Ladd, 1987), as it has become apparent that women's roles have been a central concern to the internal dialogue within Islam, and as women, themselves, have demonstrated that they are important actors in the context of current events, whether in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere. In the following analysis, facts will replace stereotype and myth and, drawing upon essential features of culture and history of the region, a model representing the complex dynamics of women's status in the Arab-Muslim world will be proposed.

ISLAM AND THE STATUS OF WOMEN

Islam was introduced into a social context that was already decidedly patriarchal, as were the two historically earlier Middle Eastern religions of Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, both Muslim and Western scholars agree that the introduction of Islam meant reform and progress regarding the status of women, with certain rights guaranteed in theology and religious law. Muslim theologists exalt the high status afforded women in Islam, and cite the continuing dignity and integrity women have in Muslim society, as compared with a perception of an increasingly degraded condition of Western women.

For instance, inheritance and property rights were extended to women, and although this is half of male inheritance, it is nevertheless a substantial modification of a strict patrilineal system which can exclude women from all inheritance rights. …

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